Did you ever watch a “controlled house burn?”
Most might think it starts with just a pile of straw and a flick of a match. Think again. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of watching the Northwood Volunteer Fire Department do a controlled burn on a house in Northwood. The purpose was to assist in training new NVFD recruits, as well as those from Lake Township and the Allen-Clay Joint Fire District.
Trainers from these departments as well as from Perrysburg City Fire Department and the Toledo Refinery (old Sun Oil) Safety Department were on hand for the burn.
It all started when I noticed an old house on Curtice Road that had the aluminum siding removed up to about eight foot from the ground, by vandals. After doing some investigating, I found out that the house was scheduled for destruction via a controlled fire so that it could be used for training firefighters.
|Northwood Volunteer Fire Department does a
controlled burn on a Northwood house. (Press
photos by Harold Hamilton/HEH.smugmug.com)
I found that getting the house ready for destruction was no easy task. The Northwood fire Department spent many hours “preparing it.” It seems they cannot just burn the house and let the smoke blow where it may. The EPA has guidelines and all of the hazardous materials, had to be removed. The house also had to be made safe for all of the firefighters. All windows were removed and replaced with sheets of plywood hinged to open outward incase an emergency escape were required. This also provided a means to change the fire by opening various windows to create unique drafts. All doors were re-hinged to open outward.
The game plan for the training was to start a small fire in one of the rooms of the house with the trainees present. They could watch how the fire climbs the wall and spreads with the fire and smoke eventually filling the room. After a certain amount of time, the flames would be extinguished and then the scenario repeated with a new group.
Fires were started in various areas of the house to simulate real life conditions. The trainers opened some of the windows so I could see from a distance how the fire grew as well as to photograph it. One of the most interesting things I saw was the smoke and flames grow and move down from the ceiling, rapidly filling the room.
I was able to get a picture of this and it clearly shows the layers of fire and smoke. Seeing this illustrates the saying that in a fire you should “stop, drop and roll.” Stop and drop to get down where the smoke and heat are reduced. The “roll” is what you do if you are on fire, as rolling will tend to smother the fire. Do not run if you are on fire.
The fire suits are a combination of Kevlar, the tough material that is also used to make bulletproof vests and Nomex. The suits weigh about 70 pounds, dry. Add another 30 pounds for the air pack and then 20 pounds or so when the suit gets wet and you have a real load. This approximately 120-plus pounds presentwa real challenge just to move around with, let alone the effort needed to pull hoses, tear down doors and possibly even carry someone.
The suits hold out the heat for a period of time, but with constant exposure, they eventually absorb so much heat that the wearer must get away from the heat. The insulating properties of the suits are such that it takes considerable time for the suit to cool even after they leave a fire. It is usually recommended that each firefighter only be exposed to the fire for 10 minutes or less.
The bottles of compressed breathing air are theoretically good for 45 minutes under normal conditions but to assure safety, they usually only use about one third of what’s available. An air compressor refills the tanks at the scene with clean filtered air, as needed.
The uniforms have many safety devices attached. For example, they have a “Pass” alarm which sounds off after 30 seconds with no movement. The purpose is to alert firefighters that someone is down and may need help.
After the recruits were exposed to the various fire situations, it was finally time to let the entire house catch fire. Several small fires were started and within a few minutes there were roaring flames – much different than igniting a stick in a fire pit in the backyard or from burning brush.
A fire in an enclosed building generates enormous heat and quickly fills the building with deadly smoke. I was about 200-300 feet away, but I still could hardly stand the heat radiating on my bare arms.
If your house catches on fire and you get out safely but then remember you forgot something or someone, don’t go back in. In just a few seconds, the fire will likely have changed so much that you will not be able to survive the increased heat.
This illustrates why it is so important to have smoke alarms for early warning and several escape plans that are well known by everyone in the house. A full house fire gets so hot that it is hard to understand how firefighters are able to keep the neighbor’s house from also burning as closely spaced as they would be in a city.
It was an educational day for everyone. Everything went smoothly and there were no injuries, burns or accidents.
The event was fun, educational and exciting but make no mistake; you may think being a firefighter means exciting work, along with a bunch of pancake dinners, barbeques and feather parties. Well it is some of that, after all they need to do some fundraising. But the real firefighting is not for the fainthearted, frail or old men. Most people couldn’t carry 100-plus pounds let alone wear that much weight just for protection so that you could risk your life trying to save someone else’s property or life.
These firefighters are strong, tough and dedicated plus they spend considerable amount of time in training and taking care of equipment. Next time you see a firefighter, thank him or her for giving up some of their family time and on occasion risking their lives to see that your community is a bit safer. Thanks to Joel Whitmore, Northwood’s Fire Chief, his assistants, his team and others from the surrounding areas. Thanks to all of the firefighters and trainers for their patience and time explaining various procedures and answering my questions.
A special thanks also to the Hirzel Canning Company for donating the house and allowing the fire department to use it for practice.